The Muppets Take Manhattan, reviewed by Craig J. Clark and Joe Blevins

By Craig J. Clark and Joe Blevins

When we first started throwing out potential movie titles for this series, one of Joe's suggestions was The Great Muppet Caper, which would have made for a great case study, but I decided that I'd rather tackle the Muppets' third cinematic outing, 1984's The Muppets Take Manhattan, since it represented something of an end of an era. It was also, for whatever reason, the only one of the three that I didn't see in theaters. (I guess I thought I had outgrown them or something, because I didn't lobby to see it the way I did with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom the same year.) As for the first two, I have to take my mother's word for it that I was taken to see The Muppet Movie at the tender age of five (going on six) because I have no clear recollection of it, but I have no such problem with The Great Muppet Caper. In fact, one of my earliest memories of going to the movies was the mob scene at a kiddie matinee of that film in the summer of 1981. But even that didn't make as much of an impression on me as seeing the melting faces at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was released just two weeks earlier. As I recall, my mother was beside herself when that scene came up, but I thought it was just dandy (which probably explains why I was chomping at the bit to see Temple of Doom three years later).

Looking back on it now, it's hard to believe how much I was at the mercy of my parents when it came to going to the movies, yet that clearly was the case. In general, the Clarks went as a family unit to all the big "event" films like E.T., Ghostbusters and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which -- along with the Superman, Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones and Back to the Future series -- made up the bulk of our movie-going diet. If there were children's films to be seen, though, our father opted out of them, which was how he managed to escape the ravages of Annie, Supergirl, The Goonies, Howard the Duck or anything that was even vaguely animated. (Not that there were many animated films of note in the early '80s. I don't even think we saw The Fox and the Hound.) That policy also extended to the Muppet movies, which may explain why my mother decided to give The Muppets Takes Manhattan a pass. Having run the gauntlet on The Great Muppet Caper, she may have simply declined to do so again.

As a result, I didn't see The Muppets Take Manhattan (hereafter TMTM) until about a decade later when I was in college and experienced a resurgence of interest in the work of Jim Henson. The main catalyst for this was a 1994 PBS documentary called The World of Jim Henson, which -- in tandem with the book Jim Henson: The Works -- The Art, the Magic, the Imagination by Christopher Finch -- opened my eyes up to the man's artistry in a way that was entirely unexpected. Both were filled with detailed accounts of his career before the creation of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show (another mainstay of my youth) and his attempts to branch out into more adult fare like his 1965 short Time Piece (which was nominated for an Academy Award for best live-action short feature) and an experimental TV film from 1969 called The Cube. Then there were later efforts like the ill-fitting "Dregs and Vestiges" sketches from the first season of Saturday Night Live and 1982's The Dark Crystal, which was such an ambitious undertaking that Henson (who had helmed The Great Muppet Caper by himself) co-directed it with Frank Oz. Eager to build on its success with a project all his own, he decided to turn the reins of TMTM entirely over to Oz, who even took a screenplay credit on what was to be Henson's last big-screen outing with his signature characters.

The film starts on an aerial shot of the Manhattan skyline and a relatively sedate opening credit sequence (at least compared to the one in The Great Muppet Caper). Through a series of dissolves, it works its way out into the hinterlands, landing in upstate New York at the fictional Danhurst College, which is played by Poughkeepsie's own Vassar College. There the student body is bearing witness to the senior variety show, "Manhattan Melodies," which has been written by Kermit the Frog and stars Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Scooter, Gonzo and Camilla the Chicken, with musical accompaniment by Rowlf the Dog and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. We only get to see the closing number -- entitled, appropriately enough, "Together Again," since audiences hadn't seen anything new out of the Muppets since 1981 -- which the college crowd goes gaga over, and the assumption is that the company will be taking the show to Broadway, which Kermit hadn't really considered (for one thing, he thinks the script still needs some work) but the others convince him to give it a whirl.

Unlike The Muppet Movie, which charts Kermit's arduous journey from his home in the swamp to Hollywood, California (picking up the other characters along the way), TMTM deposits the gang in downtown New York in the very next shot. This allows the film to jump right into the business of following Kermit and company as they shop their show around to all of the Broadway producers they can find, eagerly singing and dancing for whomever will answer the door. They nearly strike paydirt with their first contact, a smooth operator played by Dabney Coleman, who overhears the enthusiastic number they're doing for his receptionist. ("What's going on out there?" he asks over the intercom. "Just a frog with a musical," she replies.) To their chagrin, however, he seems fixated on shootings (what would a trip to New York be without them?) and, worse yet, asks for a hefty outlay of money up front. Finally he's revealed to be a fraud and, when the cops show up to arrest him, he takes Camilla hostage. (Coleman: "Get back or the chicken gets it!" Cop: "That's a threat?") Animal saves the day, but the gang has to go right back to pounding the pavement, and as the months pass they endure a series of rejections set to Dr. Teeth's "You Can't Take No for an Answer," which gets my vote for the best song in the film, but then again I'm a sucker for anything involving Dr. Teeth.

Thoroughly demoralized and down to their last few dollars (the gang has been renting lockers at the bus station to save money), our heroes appear to be on the verge of giving up and Kermit, who is at the end of his rope, has a blow-up much like Steve Buscemi's at the end of the first part of Living in Oblivion (albeit without the copious profanity). Out of desperation more than anything else, he ushers them into a nearby restaurant with the intention of ordering food for all of them, which he plans to work off. The owner, a seemingly gruff man of Greek extraction named Pete (Louis Zorich), senses that he's down on his luck and offers this sage advice:

Hey, I tell you what is. Big city. Hmm? Live. Work. Huh? But, not city open. Only peoples. Peoples is peoples. No is buildings. Is tomatoes, uh? Is peoples. Is dancing. Is music. Is potatoes. So, peoples is peoples, okay?

Remarkably, this fails to inspire Kermit, but he does strike up a friendship with Pete's daughter Jenny (Juliana Donald), which is as innocent as can be but still stokes Miss Piggy's ever-present jealousy. (Kermit's exchange with Jenny contains one of my favorite lines in the whole film after they introduce themselves and Kermit waits a beat before declaring, "I'm a frog.") The gang, meanwhile, has decided that they can't be a burden on Kermit anymore and, to the tune of "It's Time for Saying Goodbye," take their leave of the city that apparently has no use for an upbeat musical starring frogs and pigs and bears and chickens and whatevers.

Kermit stays on, though, determined to sell the show and bring his friends back. To do this, he concocts a plan that involves dressing up like a Hollywood big shot and schmoozing his way into the office of agent John Landis (apparently returning the favor to Frank Oz since he cast Oz in key supporting roles in The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London), who is largely unimpressed. When he reports back to Jenny, we discover that Miss Piggy has stayed in town and is spying on them from afar -- and like most women in New York is not immune to being hit on by boorish construction workers. She then returns to the department store where she works the perfume counter with Joan Rivers, who gets the single most annoying celebrity cameo I've ever seen in a Muppet movie. (When she decides to give Miss Piggy a makeover to cheer her up, she goes more than a little nutzoid with the makeup.)

Meanwhile, Kermit has started to get mail from the gang, who all try to make their situations (Scooter is working at a movie house in Cleveland that's showing Attack of the Killer Fish in 3-D; Fozzie is attempting to hibernate with other bears in Maine -- "How they do they do it?" he asks, bewildered; Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem are the house band at a bingo hall in Pittsburgh) sound better than they really are. Then he embarks on the second part of his plan, which involves dressing up again and initiating a whispering campaign at Sardi's with the help of the rats that work at Pete's restaurant. Unfortunately, Liza Minnelli objects to her portrait being replaced and the rats cause a panic, leading to Kermit's expulsion and, he believes, the end of his dream. This is followed by his discovery that Miss Piggy is still in town when she tails him to the park and catches him in the act of giving Jenny the dreaded huggies. Before she can confront them, though, she has to deal with a thief who snatches her purse and borrows a pair of roller skates from Gregory Hines in order to run him down. (When Hines catches up with her to reclaim his skates and finds her having it out with Kermit over his supposed infidelity, he gets the movie's fourth- or fifth-funniest line: "You gave Jenny the huggies?") Naturally Kermit and Miss Piggy make up and take a romantic carriage ride together, which leads to the movie's most famous sequence as Miss Piggy imagines what it would have been like if she and Kermit had known each other as toddlers. Or babies, even. But who would want to watch a musical number (set to the insanely catchy "I'm Gonna Always Love You"), let alone an animated TV show starring the Muppets as babies? Only the millions of children who watched Jim Henson's Muppet Babies (a title that lent itself to countless Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffs) from 1984 to 1992, that's who.

Back at the restaurant, the ever-flexible Pete gives Miss Piggy a job as a waitress, which she shows her suitability for by blowing off her first customer, Brooke Shields. (For his part, Rizzo the Rat is bold enough to ask her if she believes in inter-species dating, which is about as racy as the Muppets ever got on Henson's watch.) With the mail comes word from Gonzo, who's working as a daredevil at a water park in Michigan, and Rowlf, who's the desk clerk at a kennel in Delaware (where he has to deal with snooty customers like James Coco), as well as a legitimate offer to put Kermit's show on Broadway. The one problem is on his way back from meeting the producer Kermit is hit by a cab and gets amnesia, which somehow leads doctor Linda Lavin to believe that he is Mr. Enrico Tortellini of Passaic, New Jersey. Not very likely since he doesn't feel Italian, but Kermit does fall in with a trio of unimaginative frogs (named Bill, Gil and Jill) whose marketing firm, Mad Ave. Advertising, is having trouble coming up with a good slogan for their one account, Ocean Breeze soap. ("It's just like taking an ocean cruise only there's no boat and you don't actually go anywhere" clearly isn't cutting it.) Kermit's novel concept -- simply stating what a product does -- is a sensation and he dubs himself "Phil" to fit in with his amphibious compatriots. Meanwhile, everyone converges on Pete's restaurant and the search is on to find Kermit before opening night, which is a mere two weeks away.

Not to ruin the suspense or anything, but Kermit is found, his amnesia is cured, the show does go on, and he and Miss Piggy do tie the knot in the lavish closing number, which is witnessed by every character from both The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. Then, in an echo of The Muppet Movie, which ended with Animal telling the audience to "go home" (prefiguring Ferris Bueller and Tracey Ullman by close to a decade), the excitable drummer closes the film with a series of "bye-byes" followed by a hearty "hasta luego." One can easily imagine that both Frank Oz, who played Animal, and Jim Henson were both eager to move to other things (Henson already had Labyrinth in the works and Oz's next project was the film adaptation of the Broadway show Little Shop of Horrors).

Tellingly, the next time the Muppets appeared on the big screen was in 1992's A Muppet Christmas Carol, which was two years after Henson's death, and was the first Muppet film not to be based on an original script. It was also a film that I didn't see for many years, believing that it somehow violated the spirit of what Jim Henson's creations were all about. In fact, it wasn't until Muppets from Space came out in 1999 that I felt the company that he founded (and which continued to crank out Muppet-related projects at an alarming rate) had made a worthy follow-up to TMTM. Along with the regrettably short-lived TV series Muppets Tonight, Muppets from Space showed that the best way to handle the characters was to treat them as characters in their own right, not as actors filling roles in pre-existing stories like A Christmas Carol or Treasure Island. If only somebody had told them that before they tackled 2002's It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (a woefully dispiriting riff on It's a Wonderful Life) or The Muppets' Wizard of Oz in 2005 (which I couldn't even bring myself to watch), that could have saved a great deal of heartache all around.

In retrospect, The Muppets Take Manhattan feels like the last gasp of classic Muppetdom. By the time the movie was released in the summer of 1984, the famous puppet troupe's syndicated TV series had been off the air three years, and there were no further Muppet feature films during the lifetime of Jim Henson, who died in 1990. During the last years of Henson's life, both he and and his first lieutenant, Frank Oz, had moved on other TV and film projects, leaving the animated Saturday morning series Jim Henson's Muppet Babies (itself a spin-off from TMTM) and the unstoppable Sesame Street as the major placeholders of the Muppet legacy in the late 1980s. Ironically, Henson's death seemed to be the catalyst for a Muppet revival, and a new series of films began in 1992 with The Muppet Christmas Carol, this time with Henson's son Brian at the helm. Unfortunately, that was also the same year another prominent Muppeteer, Richard Hunt (Statler, Janice, Scooter) passed away. In recent years, Frank Oz has concentrated on his live-action, non-puppet-related directing career and has intentionally distanced himself from his Muppet legacy. The roles once played by Henson, Oz, and Hunt have been assigned to other actors with varying degrees of success. At the very end of this film, as Craig mentioned, Frank Oz can be heard (as Animal) saying, "Bye bye! Hasta luego!" and it's surprisingly poignant. Maybe they knew somehow this was it.

So all that leaves The Muppets Take Manhattan as the Muppet equivalent of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Whether it was intended as such or not, the film is the original Muppet franchise's final, big, hail-hail-the-gang's-all-here, enjoy-it-while-it-lasts, motion picture spectacular. Returning to the film 26 years later, I found it to be a largely enjoyable and satisfying sendoff for some familiar childhood friends, especially Kermit. It's tough to say whether the film seems dated today because it probably seemed intentionally dated when it was brand new. The basic plotline of The Muppets Take Manhattan -- in which the Muppets encounter various setbacks, economic and otherwise, in transforming their college variety show Manhattan Melodies into a Broadway hit -- seems less like a product of the 1980s and more like a product of the 1930s. In fact, funnily enough, while I was originally screening the film for this project, I was interrupted by a phone call from my father who wanted me to help him identify a film he'd seen on Turner Classic Movies. Through the plot and cast clues he gave me, I was able to piece together that the film he'd seen was Broadway Melody of 1938 with Robert Taylor, Buddy Ebsen, and Judy Garland. While researching that film online, I couldn't help but notice how similar its basic plotline (young hero desperately struggles to get a show on Broadway) was to the Muppet film I'd just been watching. In his 1984 review of The Muppets Take Manhattan, Roger Ebert compared to Kermit the Frog to Mickey Rooney, who of course also made a string of cornball let's-put-on-a-show musicals with Judy Garland in the 1930s. Judy herself was long gone by 1984, but TMTM manages to wrangle a cameo -- first in caricature form, then in the flesh -- from Judy's daughter, Liza Minnelli, who appears in her natural habitat, Sardi's Restaurant.

The old-fashionedness of The Muppets Take Manhattan does not stop at the plot outline. No, sir. It goes marrow-deep. The Broadway show the Muppets are supposedly producing bears no resemblance whatsoever to the garish, post-Cats rock musicals of the 1980s. As far as I can tell, the exceedingly gentle Manhattan Melodies has little to no conflict whatsoever. It tells the story of a nice young couple (played by Kermit and Miss Piggy) who go to New York to get married and then -- in a twist ending -- get married. Some plot, eh? What makes TMTM seem so sweetly quaint today is that there is nothing even slightly subversive about its Depression-era trappings. First-time solo director Frank Oz also rewrote the script because he found the first draft by Tom Prachett and Jay Tarses to be "too broad" and "not affectionate," and the result is the most straight-laced, sincere film of the original Muppet trilogy, the only one in which the characters never break the fourth wall and acknowledge that they're in a movie. (If you think about it, the plot of The Muppet Movie could technically be described as: the Muppets go to a theater and watch a movie about themselves. The end.) The Muppets Take Manhattan is less a parody of 1930s movie-making than an evocation of it. There's a struggling-to-make-it-in-the-big-city montage early in the film complete with pages being flipped on a calendar and the Muppets pretending to walk by shifting their weight from one side to the other while standing in front of a changing backdrop of neon signs. When that kind of thing is done on The Simpsons (and they've done it several times over the years), it's a slyly ironic, in-on-the-joke spoof. When the Muppets do this, it feels absolutely genuine, i.e. we're doing this because... well, because that's how it's done! The Muppets are nothing if not die-hard traditionalists. They know, for instance, that the best way to introduce your Very Special Guest Stars is to have them stand with their backs to the camera so that it's a big deal when we finally see them from the front. First, it's "Hey, it's Joan Rivers!" then "Hey, it's Gregory Hines!" and finally "Hey, it's Linda Lavin!" Ms. Lavin, incidentally, makes her film debut here, though she was already very familiar to audiences due to the long-running weekly sitcom, Alice. I never knew she was anything great until I heard the cast recordings of The MAD Show and It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman! Trust me, she's great. For a movie ostensibly about the magic of stagecraft, it's appropriate that many of the cameos this time around are from seasoned theatrical performers. Besides Minnelli, Hines, and Lavin, we also have Art Carney, who -- let's not forget -- originated the role of Felix Unger onstage before Jack Lemmon or Tony Randall gave us their interpretations of the character. It would've been nice to have Randall in this film, too, but at least you can spot a caricature of him in the aforementioned Sardi's scene. (While I'm on the subject of wished-for guest stars, it seems inconceivable that Phil Silvers never worked with the Muppets. Hell, he did an episode of CHiPs.)

With no tricky plot or postmodern subversion to distract the audience, the film's main purpose is to serve as a forum for the Muppets to display their various dramatic, comedic, and musical talents. On that level, the film is mainly a success. Jeff Moss' agreeable if slight song score does not contain anything on the order of "The Rainbow Connection" or "Movin' Right Along" from the first film or "Happiness Hotel" from the second, but at least two of the songs are standouts: the ever-building opening number, "Together Again," and the 1950s-styled novelty rocker, "I'm Gonna Always Love You." The Muppets, as expected, handle these tunes with aplomb. Frank Oz is not generally thought of as a singer (his Wikipedia page lists him as "Actor, Director, Puppeteer"), but of course he and all the main Muppet performers have sung dozens of songs over the years -- in character, no less! Oz handles the role of Miss Piggy (a drag part) entirely in falsetto, and his range, both vocal and emotional, is astonishing. At the climax of "I'm Gonna Always Love You," Oz hits an incredibly high G -- not just hits it, but belts it and holds it for several seconds! This is a talented man! It is often Miss Piggy's burden to sing each film's soppiest love ballad, too, and Oz again rises to the challenge with "He'll Make Me Happy," which certainly does not sound like it's being sung by a bald, mustachioed man.

For the most part, The Muppets Take Manhattan splits up the gang and gives them individual story threads. Fozzie, Rowlf, Scooter, Gonzo, and the Electric Mayhem all get little vignettes to themselves, which range from pretty funny (Fozzie nervously interacts with some non-showbiz bears; the Mayhem play polka music in a beer hall) to quite funny indeed (Rowlf works at a dog kennel; Gonzo's water-skiing act goes horribly awry). As expected, the movie lavishes most of its time on Kermit and Piggy. I am aware that some critics -- Roger Ebert and Ken Tucker among them -- have very little tolerance for Piggy and find her grating and overbearing, but I can't imagine the Muppets without her. Like Frank Oz's other big Muppet character, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy is terribly insecure and hungry for the approval of others, especially Kermit. But unlike Fozzie and the other Muppets, who generally try to be ingratiating and humble, Piggy can be vain, manipulative, egomaniacal, pretentious, delusional, paranoid, and violent. She has a flair for drama and seems to relish any opportunity to cause a scene in public. Attention is attention, after all. At one point in this film, she loudly argues with Kermit in Central Park because she thinks he's been carrying on a romance with a human waitress named Jenny, who in truth is just a friend and has been helping him to land a job and get his show produced. As always, Piggy is staggeringly mercurial throughout this scene. When she is first approached by Jenny and Kermit (who have been jogging nearby), Piggy first feigns casualness and claims merely to be "sightseeing," but quickly turns haughty. "I do not wish to discuss it in present company," she states with Jenny only a few feet away. Jenny meekly excuses herself, but the bickering couple is soon joined by fellow park-goer (and fabulous guest star) Gregory Hines, who tries to mediate. After dramatically confronting Kermit with her suspicions of his infidelity, Piggy plays the role of martyr: "Maybe, Kermit, maybe it would have been better if we never had met. Then you and Jenny would not be tormented by my presence!" Only Piggy could work a phrase like "tormented by my presence" into a conversation this way and have it seem par for the course. Her mood changes so frequently that even Hines does not know how to react to her, at one point trying to comfort her with a hug and then just as suddenly backing away from her suspiciously. Piggy is one complex pig.

But above all, this movie is Kermit's showcase. Freed from the responsibility of directing, Jim Henson is allowed to fully concentrate on his acting, and The Muppets Take Manhattan gives Kermit the opportunity to be much more than a mere straight man to the zanier members of the Muppet troupe. At his lowest ebb in this film -- his friends scattered, the show going nowhere -- Kermit delivers a heartfelt soliloquy from the observation deck of the Empire State Building, and his mood is half-defiant, half-desperate:

Look at all those people down there. Lots of people. But my friends... my friends are all gone. Well, I'm gonna get 'em back. I'm gonna get 'em back! Because the show's not dead as long as I believe in it. And I'm gonna sell that show, and we're all gonna be on Broadway. YOU HEAR ME. NEW YORK? WE'RE GONNA BE ON BROADWAY! BECAUSE... BECAUSE I'M NOT GIVIN' UP! I'M STILL HERE, AND I'M STAYIN'! YOU HEAR THAT, NEW YORK? I'M STAYIN' HERE! THE FROG IS STAYIN'!!

Among his many pitiful gambits to get Manhattan Melodies produced, Kermit first impersonates a fast-talking, sleazy salesman, barging into a bewildered John Landis's office uninvited and issuing forth a nonstop stream of gibberish ("It's totally today yet tremendously timeless"), and later assumes the role of a fat cat producer complete with a waxed mustache and talk of a "reservation secretary." But by far, my favorite permutation of Kermit's character comes when Kermit acquires amnesia, loses his identity, and casts his lot with a group of frog advertising executives, all of whose names rhyme. (Kermit dubs himself "Phil," while the others are Gil, Jill, and Bill.) I like the way Kermit almost immediately acquires the other frogs' odd speech pattern: kind of sing-song-y and slow, punctuated with lots of "Hmmmm"s and "Ahhhh"s. The subplot about the advertising executives is one of the film's few nods to contemporary times ("contemporary" meaning "post-FDR"), and these scenes have a different rhythm than the rest of the movie.

Alas, TMTM falters a bit in the final stages, when Kermit is reunited with the gang and they successfully stage Manhattan Melodies on Broadway. I've already mentioned the film's two best songs, and neither of them are a part of this finale, which is the film's longest musical sequence. The filmmakers are clearly relying on spectacle here rather than memorable music or funny jokes. Having wisely opted to take "the first train out of town," beloved hecklers Statler and Waldorf are not on hand to provide the necessary backtalk that would've helped cut through the considerable treacle as Kermit and Piggy are married in a lavish ceremony (ostensibly part of the Muppets' Broadway revue, but the movie kind of abandons the show-within-a-movie conceit once the wedding actually begins) attended by just about every other Muppet in existence, including many from Sesame Street. I remember that much of the publicity surrounding the film during its initial run focused on this wedding, and Oz and his cast and crew do everything possible to make it a visual smorgasbord. At one point, we see an entire church full of Muppets swaying to the music, and it's an impressive sight. But I didn't really find any of this particularly engrossing or moving, and the whole sequence exacerbates the Muppets' worst trait: a tendency towards shameless mawkishness. A Muppet production should be constantly on the verge of chaos, both onstage and off. Yet Manhattan Melodies goes off all too smoothly. The sequence seems to drag on and on, and the only real point of interest is Kermit's genuine trepidation before saying, "I do."

There are other flaws, too. While the celebrity cameos are generally fun (I have not yet mentioned Dabney Coleman or James Coco, both superb), none of them have the impact of Steve Martin from the first film or John Cleese from the second. The songs, as I've mentioned before, are slightly weak. (This is the only Muppet feature film whose soundtrack didn't make it to CD.) And in the lead human female role, Juliana Donald is only barely adequate as Jenny the waitress. Donald gets quite a bit of screen time here, yet she seems like the understudy for someone more compelling. The most interesting thing about Jenny, at least from a 2010 perspective, is her hairdo, specifically the bangs that anticipate those of current indie darling Zooey Deschanel. I am not surprised Juliana Donald never landed another starring role in a film, though she did carve out a long career in television for herself.

By and large, though, I'm glad this movie exists as a fitting conclusion to the original era of Muppet history. Each Muppet project is a study in problem-solving -- how do we get a Muppet to ride a bike? how do we get one to rollerskate? -- and The Muppets Take Manhattan is a dazzling display of puppeteering skill, with the Muppet performers making the characters so expressive and versatile that it's easy for us in the audience to accept them as the equals of their human costars and to get involved in the various triumphs and tragedies of their felt-and-plastic lives.

Then again, maybe the greatest joy afforded us by The Muppets Take Manhattan is simply the chance to see the Muppets playing against the backdrop of the real live New York City as it looked during the era of Mayor Ed Koch (who engages in a little repartee with Gonzo here). In a vintage interview included on the DVD, Jim Henson sums it up: "I always loved the look of the characters outdoors. I think they always look a little bit more believable out in sunlight." And he's right, of course. The gang has never looked better.

Up next: Can you intentionally make a "cult movie," or do they just have to happen naturally? We'll ponder that question with our "Cult On Arrival" month, starting with a review of 1981's Shock Treatment.


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How appropriate that we're covering this movie just as details are starting to emerge about the Muppets' next picture. It seems that in recent years, the troupe's biggest successes have come in short-form pieces like music videos and talk show skits, while the longer stuff (movies, specials) have floundered. I sincerely hope the next Muppet film turns the tide.

Incidentally, I did see the Muppets Wizard of Oz, and I can say that it is -- I'm sorry -- terrible. Worse even than you're imagining. The last big Christmas special, Letters to Santa, was nearly as disastrous. Best to pretend those projects never happened.

No need to apologize, Joe. If something is terrible, it's terrible. How's that saying go? "You can't polish a toad"? I'm pretty sure that's it.

As for their upcoming big-screen adventure, I expect I'll probably give it a pass no matter how it turns out. I saw Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets from Space in theaters because I was in the company of like-minded people. I simply can't imagine going to see a Muppet movie by myself, though.

By giving it a pass, do you mean in theaters or forever? I doubt I'll see it in the theater, unless it comes out over a holiday weekend or something and my niece and nephews want to see it. (That's how I managed to see Princess & The Frog and How to Train Your Dragon on the big screen.) Otherwise, it's definitely the kind of thing I'd catch on DVD, which is my preferred way of watching a movie anyway since I've had it up to HERE with cinema audiences. (Read all about it.)

And then there's always the possibility that the new Muppet film will open to great reviews and word-of-mouth. Who knows? The fact that they're bringing in new writing/directing talent -- from the Apatow school -- gives this film the feel of a franchise relaunch, like what was done with Star Trek. (Come to think of it, I didn't see Star Trek either. Hmm.)

Still in all, I'm glad that they're doing a completely new script and not another remake with humans in the main roles and the Muppets in support. That was among the many problems with the Oz film. With Letters To Santa, I really wanted to like it, but the characterizations were way off (since when is Gonzo so morose?), the songs were dreadful, the celebrity cameos were ill-conceived (apart from a nice turn by Uma Thurman), and the whole thing just basically stank. A shame, too, because that special brought Paul Williams back into the Muppet fold as a writer, composer, and actor. (He actually managed to bungle all three assignments, though.) And the special proved conclusively that Michael Bloomberg is no Ed Koch when it comes to Muppet cameos.

If the movie gets good notices, I'll catch it on video. Apart from Pixar films, which are always worth seeing in theaters, I just can't justify putting up with the horrendously distracting audience behavior that attends family movies.

Family movie audiences are pretty awful. But I contend that the absolute worst-behaved moviegoing demographic is teenage girls. (Not that boys that age are any great shakes, but unlike the girls they occasionally run out of things to say.) What has surprised -- and disappointed -- me in recent years is witnessing how badly behaved older audiences can be. They're nearly as bad as the teeners in some cases. Older people are the ones most likely to (loudly) ask each other questions about the plot, and they are not shy about answering their phones during the movie either. (At one screening late last year, a woman two rows behind me was making dinner plans over the phone!) It's gotten to the point that I am uneasy about seeing any movie in the theater these days. Even if the audience manages to be relatively sedate during the film -- and that means that the distractions are intermittent rather than constant -- you can be sure that every self-styled Ebert in attendance will start loudly opining about the quality of the film the second the end credts appear. I always want to tell them, "I don't care what you thought of the movie! Save it until you get in your car! Torture your family and friends with your editorials, not me!"

I could continue with a rant about how bad movie theater popcorn has become, but we've gotten way off the subject of The Muppets Take Manhattan. Good little film, that.

Before we leave behind the Freudian minefield that is The Muppets Take Manhattan, I want to take a moment to talk about Brooke Shields' cameo in this film. She seemed oddly unconvincing playing the role of herself, her stilted line readings betraying the fact that she was a showbiz veteran at that point with several movies on her resume. Her performance here reminded me of what usually happens when politicians or athletes host Saturday Night Live. On the other hand, I had no real problem with the Joan Rivers scene. I must have a fairly high Joan Rivers tolerance level, but I kind of appreciated how relaxed and seemingly improvised the scene was.

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This page contains a single entry by Craig J. Clark and Joe Blevins published on April 22, 2010 3:45 AM.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, reviewed by Joe Blevins and Craig J. Clark was the previous entry in this blog.

Shock Treatment, reviewed by Joe Blevins and Craig J. Clark is the next entry in this blog.

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